The huge defeat of the Conservative party in the election of 1997 drove the party back into its rural and suburban redoubts and so cut it off from many things which were happening in Britain. It did not want to think about the rise of political Islam.
This opting out was part of a wider demoralisation in conservative culture in recent years. In the time of the Millennium, the death of Diana and all that, many conservative-minded people started to say things like, ‘I don’t recognise my own country.’ They felt so alienated, particularly from their own cities, that they wanted to avoid thinking about problems of multiculturalism, and of terrorism. So when bombs actually went off in 2005 and actually killed people, the fact that they exploded in our capital city should, if anything, have made them even more alarming for the whole country. For sections of Tory Britain, however, they seemed remote, almost easy to dismiss. This is what happens, people told themselves, in ghastly modern London.
The conservative abdication on the matter has been very dangerous because it is a prelude to defeatism. It contains the germ of the mentality which prevailed among non-Nazi supporters of Vichy France — they believed that the country they loved was finished, so they abandoned their patriotism.
I am glad to say, however, that this defeatism is not characteristic of the current leadership of the Conservative party, which is starting to engage more actively with these issues. And the wind of public opinion has changed. Everyone now talks of ‘British values’, even though few seem to have much idea what they might be.
So now is a good time to sketch out a possible conservative approach to the question of Islam in Britain.
It is not for any political party to say what Islam, as a religion, is, even if what that party says about it is complimentary. The trouble is, however, that the most vocal leaders of Islam in this country today themselves advance their religion in a political way. They say that Muslims cannot support any British military action against a Muslim nation, or that it is an Islamic duty to oppose the existence of Israel, or that British law should be altered to make it a criminal offence to insult their prophet Mohammed.
Some — the organisation Hizb ut Tahrir, for instance, which the government promised to ban in 2005, but has still not done so — even argue that what they see as God-given law — the sharia — is the only law which they should obey and that Muslims therefore owe no allegiance to this land which they inhabit. The Muslim Council of Britain, supposedly the umbrella organisation for all Muslims in this country, is much influenced by followers of the Pakistani ideologue, Mawdudi, who said, ‘Islam wishes to do away with all states and governments which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam,’ if necessary, ‘by the power of the sword.’
So conservatives have to deal with these claims made on behalf of the Muslim religion because they demand a response in the public sphere.
How should they answer them? Not by treating the Muslim presence in Britain as colonial administrators in far-flung provinces would once have treated religious groups among the people they subjugated. Such pro-consuls often found themselves doing deals with the tribal or spiritual leaders, affording them group rights in return for peace. We are not talking about an imperial system, but about a parliamentary democracy. We must all live under the same law. We cannot divide and rule: we must unite and rule.
To do so, our elected representatives must have the necessary knowledge.
If an average Member of Parliament is approached by a church group today, he probably has a rough idea about the nature of the church or churches involved. Yet how many MPs today, especially Conservative MPs, when approached by Muslim groups, really know whether the people petitioning them are moderate Sufis or Barelwis, or extremist Wahhabis or Salafists? How often do they know where they get their money from — the answer, among many of the extremists, is Saudi Arabia — or what are their links with foreign organisations such as the extremist Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami (both of which are highly influential in the Muslim Council of Britain)?
Phoney Muslim moderates, beloved of the media, are a great feature of our age. Look at Tariq Ramadan, for example, lionised at Oxford while considered so extreme in France that he found it easier to leave and work here. There are genuine Muslim moderates all right, but accurate recognition is difficult.
So it is very important to study all the groups that claim to speak in the name of Islam. We should ban those which actually incite violence and create a list of those which advocate such antisocial attitudes that they should not receive public money or official recognition.
One of the most powerful lessons from Ed Husain’s remarkable book, The Islamist, is that the people most intimidated by Islamist extremism in this country are Muslims themselves. It is they who bear the brunt of abuse and threats in their mosques, in their student societies, youth groups and other organisations. Every time the wider society enters into dialogue with the extremists we are not only dealing unwittingly with bad people, we are also empowering them against good people.
In trying to work out how best to pick one’s way through this minefield, think of the long debate about how best to deal with trade union militancy and communist infiltration.
The problem was twofold. One was that the union bosses, once all-powerful, could no longer reliably deliver their members. Wildcat strikes were even more of a problem than official ones. So even sensible union leaders were often useless.
The other problem was that the Left, quite often supported by Moscow, had worked its way into the interstices of union and party power. Moderates split between those who sought to placate the reality of extremism and those who knew it must be confronted. Labour governments decided to get tough and then, for electoral or internal party advantage, to go soft, inventing things like ‘Solomon Binding’ or the Social Contract. Utter confusion resulted.
In this area, the Conservatives were first of all timorous and ignorant, hoping simply to profit from Labour’s travails. When they did try to deal with trade union reform, under Ted Heath’s government, they burnt their fingers by using the wrong sort of legislation. When this failed, they divided. There were many, led by Jim Prior, who thought that trade union power could not be curtailed but could only be appeased.
The alternative view, led by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, was to question the premise. Did union leaders really represent the people in whose name they claimed to speak, they asked. Or was it rather that their legal privileges and lack of internal democracy meant that they constantly misrepresented their members and even exploited them? If only they had the power, trade union members would act responsibly in their economic interests.
We all know that this was proved triumphantly right. The last great struggle was the miners’ strike. Everyone remembers that Mrs Thatcher won. What people tend to forget is the fundamental weakness which undermined the union leader, Arthur Scargill, from the beginning. Having lost ballots in earlier disputes, he always refused to ballot his members on the strike. His position was therefore illegitimate from the start. A Conservative government at last had the courage to point this out, and to resist.
Obviously the analogies between British trade unions and an ancient world religion are inexact, to put it mildly. But I do think there is a lesson here. The difficulty for the g
overnment in confronting Scargill was that he did express some of the miners’ hopes and fears. But he was also an extremist and a megalomaniac, a man who wanted the last battle with the evil Tories and was uninterested in what it might cost his own people.
The extremists who claim to speak in the name of Islam today do stand for something among their co-religionists, though with less legitimacy even than Scargill. If they did not, they could be utterly ignored. They do tap into grievances. But, being people who, often explicitly, reject democracy, they are not truly representative of Muslims in Britain. Indeed, they have hijacked Islam in Britain, a process which first exploded nearly 20 years ago with the protests against Salman Rushdie. They have frightened too many moderates into silence.
Those of us who are not Muslims cannot, ultimately, dethrone the extremists alone. As with the unions and their leaders, that is for Muslims themselves to do. But what we can do is to question their claims and keep their hands off public money — often distributed, laughably, incredibly, in the name of community cohesion. We can reach out to all those who see themselves not as Muslims who happen to be in Britain but as proudly British and proudly Muslim — and also, indeed, to all those people of Muslim origin who dislike being defined by their religious identity.
In advocating this approach, I realise that some will think me over-optimistic. The clash of civilisations theorists argue that there is a titanic struggle between Western values and Islamic ones, and it is simply a question of making sure that the right side wins.
In all dealings with the subject of Islam in Britain, conservatives should certainly beware of undercurrents they may not understand. The biographies of some of the 7 July bombers taught us that young men who seem to tick the boxes of integration into modern Britain can in fact be wooed into extremist beliefs.
But more than two million Muslims live in this country today, no less peacefully than their non-Muslim neighbours, and very large numbers of them have jobs in the wider civil society. They bring up families. Most are our worthy fellow-citizens. I find it very hard to believe that the unyielding, angry, harsh discourse which comes from the noisier Muslim spokesmen, the demonic violence of al-Qa’eda and Hamas, or the literalist rigidities of the Taleban or Wahhabi Saudi Arabia are their authentic voice.
Indeed, to return to my trade union analogy, even if we want to do a base deal with the extreme, self-appointed spokesmen of Islam today, we should recognise that they cannot deliver. Everything is in flux. We are seeing a battle about modernity. The struggle to replace the old, tribal immigrant leaders is led, on one side, by a rigorous revolutionary creed, a sort of God-intoxicated Militant Tendency which thinks it is in the vanguard of history. Hizb ut Tahrir, for example, sells itself as an organisation that scorns most of what happens in mosques, puts little emphasis on prayer and even holds out the prospect of much wider marriage opportunities than are traditional. It acts modern.
On the other side are those genuine reformers who long to live at peace in the free Western world, who are in Britain by choice as well as by chance.
I think the extremists are as brittle as was Arthur Scargill and, unless we are so foolish as to help them, they will not prevail. The bearded men who brandish placards calling for the beheading of those who insult Islam because of a few harmless cartoons will quite soon come to look as outdated as those pickets with their mutton-chop whiskers gathered round braziers and shouting ‘Scab!’ in the 1970s.
Conservatives, who have the advantage over the Left of being unembarrassed by British history, should study the interesting fact that tens of thousands of Muslims volunteered — they were not conscripted — to fight for the British Empire in two world wars. In the first, they fought against the Ottoman Empire, to which, in theory, they owed spiritual allegiance. Why did they do so? Not, surely, because they were offered multiculturalism, but because they felt themselves respected and secure in the self-confident British political culture of that time.
We should bear in mind the importance of the individual rather than the group. A believing Muslim will naturally regard his belief as encompassing his whole life, but that will not mean that he makes no separation between his personal beliefs and his politics.
Our Western language of rights and freedom puts great stress on the fact that each person is entitled to choice and autonomy. We must never allow our respect for any organised religion to allow us to forget the individual rights of its adherents and of the rest of us. We must not fall into the trap of speaking of Muslims as being defined, for purposes of most public policy and law, by their religion. For most purposes, we do not need to speak to Muslims through self-appointed gatekeepers. Muslims here, like Jews and Hindus and Sikhs and Christians and nothings and don’t knows, are individual men and women and they are British.
But it may also be that, purged of its current political deformations, Islam will indeed have things from which British society can profit. I am in correspondence with a Muslim thinker who criticises the ‘identity politics’ pursued by so many Islamist leaders. He says such attitudes produce only anger and pride. Muslims are enjoined, he says, to be ‘scholars of the heart’. In Islam, the word ‘honour’ does not have to go with the word ‘killing’, but can have a real meaning which it has too often lost in our secular society. So can ideas of dignity, of obligation to elderly parents, of community. He quotes a Sufi saying: ‘If every man were to mend a man, then every man would be mended.’ Our broken society, of which conservatives rightly talk so much today, has need of such mending.
This is based on the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, given by the author last week at the Centre for Policy Studies.